Alvin Ailey: don’t dance around Israeli apartheid

The following statement was released by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on 9 October 2010:

While human beings are being willfully denied not just their rights but their needs for their children and grandparents and themselves, I feel deeply that I should not be sending even tacit signals that [performing in Israel] is either “normal” or “ok.” It’s neither and I cannot support it. It grieves me that it has come to this and I pray everyday for human beings to begin caring for each other, firm in the wisdom that we are all we have. - Faithless frontman Maxi Jazz (

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is deeply disturbed by news reports that your company plans to participate, later this month, in the fourth annual Tel Aviv Dance Festival, an initiative sponsored by the Tel Aviv Municipality and cultural institutions that are complicit in maintaining Israel’s system of colonial oppression (“12 int’l dance troupes to perform in TA,” YNet, 30 September 2010). PACBI, supported by an overwhelming majority in Palestinian civil society and, in particular, by almost the entire community of Palestinian dance artists and other cultural workers, views the participation of any international cultural group in this, or any similarly objectionable festival, as a form of complicity in whitewashing Israel’s occupation, apartheid and war crimes. We ask you to cancel your participation and to join the growing ranks of prominent international artists and arts groups who have refused to cross our boycott picket line and have thus evoked the most noble traditions of international solidarity that was manifest in the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

Palestinian artists and boycott activists were particularly disheartened by Alvin Ailey’s plans to partake in this festival, given your group’s record of standing up for human rights and against racist oppression.

In 2008, when you first ignored our pleas and participated in Israel’s “re-branding” propaganda efforts by performing in Tel Aviv, you yourself fell target to Israel’s institutionalized and prevailing racism. Israeli security officers at Tel Aviv’s Airport forced Alvin Ailey dancer, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, your only African-American member with a Muslim/Arab sounding name, to perform twice for them in order to prove he was a dancer before letting him enter the country with the rest of the company, as reported by the Associated Press then (“Israeli security forces black performer to dance,” Associated Press, 9 September 2008). While still officially illegal in the US, ethnic profiling, considered racist by human rights groups, is widespread in Israel. It is seen in such places as entrances to malls, public and private buildings, airports, etc. Israeli citizens and permanent residents with Arab names — or often just “Arab accents” — are commonly singled out for rough, intrusive and glaringly humiliating “security” checks (“So you think you can dance?,” Dance Insider, 12 September 2008. Even after Mr. Jackson had complied, one of the Israeli officers suggested that he change his name, leaving him humiliated and “deeply saddened,” as your own spokesperson confirmed at the time. In response to your humiliation, you did nothing.

At a time when the Israeli state is besieging and denying basic rights and needs to 1.5 million Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip and committing a gradual ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and the Naqab (Negev), dancing in Tel Aviv is all that more morally repulsive. You shall be dancing at a festival primarily sponsored by the Tel Aviv Municipality, an official Israeli body notorious for its apartheid policies against the indigenous Palestinians. As the seat of Israel’s political and economic power, Tel Aviv houses the institutions that mastermind and oversee the implementation of Israel’s longstanding policies of ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination and military subjugation. It is hence more emblematic of apartheid and colonial rule than any other Israeli city. Tel Aviv is a city in colonial denial. Its very existence and expansion are products of the Zionist project of erasing the physical presence of the Palestinians, their culture, heritage and memory. The adjacent Palestinian city of Jaffa and numerous villages were emptied of their indigenous inhabitants to make way for the “White City.” Performing in Tel Aviv today is therefore equivalent to, if not worse than, performing in Sun City under apartheid South Africa, in violation of the call for boycott supported by the oppressed black majority then.

Two years after the initial 2004 call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel was issued by PACBI, a large majority of Palestinian artists and cultural workers appealed to all artists and filmmakers of good conscience around the world “to cancel all exhibitions and other cultural events that are scheduled to occur in Israel, to mobilize immediately and not allow the continuation of the Israeli offensive to breed complacency.” As with the past boycott of South African cultural institutions, international cultural workers and groups are urged by their Palestinian colleagues to “speak out against the current Israeli war crimes and atrocities.”

Many world renowned artists and intellectuals heeded the Palestinian appeal for boycott; those included John Berger, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, the Irish artists union, Aosdana, and Belgian dance companies Rosas and Les Ballets C. de la B. The latter published a statement defending the cultural boycott as “a legitimate, unambiguous and nonviolent way of exerting additional pressure on those responsible” (“Point of view — Performances in Israel,” PACBI, 5 July 2005).

Most recently, best-selling US author Alice Walker reminded the world of the Rosa Parks-triggered and Martin Luther King-led boycott of a racist bus company in Montgomery, Alabama during the US civil rights movement, calling for wide endorsement of the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as a moral duty in solidarity with Palestinians, “to soothe the pain and attend the sorrows of a people wrongly treated for generations.”

In August, more than 150 (now closer to 200) Irish artists published a pledge to boycott Israeli cultural institutions until Israel complies with international law (“Irish artists make BDS history …,” PACBI, 11 August 2010). A few months earlier, Montreal, Canada, witnessed a most impressive initiative in this respect, where 500 artists issued a statement committing themselves to “fighting against [Israeli] apartheid” and calling upon “all artists and cultural producers across the country and around the world to adopt a similar position in this global struggle” for Palestinian rights (“500 Artists Against Israeli Apartheid,” Tadamon!, 25 February 2010).

As to those claiming that a cultural boycott of Israel would infringe on freedom of expression and cultural exchange, we recall the judicious words of Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Center against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to similar criticism voiced against the cultural boycott of South Africa saying:

“It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms … to the African majority … should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime” (“12 Positions on Cultural Sanctions,” Theatre Communications Group, 11 October 2010).

Alvin Ailey, and indeed all other artists and cultural entities that uphold human rights and human dignity, surely realize that art and moral responsibility cannot be divorced. In a situation of colonial oppression and apartheid, you cannot simply dance around apartheid; you are called upon to help in ending it.